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December 25, 2004

Peers Motivate Deaf Man

From: Albuquerque Journal - Albuquerque,NM,USA - Dec 25, 2004

By Gabriela C. Guzman
Journal Staff Writer

EDGEWOOD— It's been five months since Trevor Brennan has spoken, and he could not be happier.

He navigates through a world where communication is silent, and compared to the raucousness of just a year ago, he prefers the quiet.

Trevor had just finished his first semester at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.— a college for deaf and hard-of-hearing students— and is home for winter break.

A little more than a year ago Trevor did not know sign language, but at his new life in college, he said he uses sign language more than spoken language.

For many years Trevor viewed life after high school as a vast black hole. With poor grades at his public high school in Moriarty, coupled with severe low self-esteem, Trevor now admits to having thoughts of suicide during those years that were fraught with depression.

"I just could not see what my life was going to be after 18," Trevor said sitting inside his family's double-wide trailer on a dirt road in the East Mountain area.

A collision with a classmate during a touch football game when Trevor was 10 left him deaf in one ear and further perpetuated the minimal hearing in the other.

"We smacked into each other," is how Trevor, 18, now explains the accident. He said he remembers waking up after the collision, being on the floor and seeing faces, but he could not hear anything.

A litany of tests later, showed that Trevor had a condition called enlarged vestibular aqueduct syndrome which caused gradual hearing loss.

Trevor already had minimal hearing in his left ear, but the accident left Trevor with no hearing in the left and only 10 percent hearing in his right ear.

With a hearing aid, Trevor's hearing in his right ear increases to about 50 percent.

Two years before the accident, life in the Brennan household had been dramatically altered when Trevor's mother, Sara, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a debilitating disease that attacks the central nervous system.

'Horribly worried'
After his accident, Trevor said he began to question the existence of God because of all the bad things that happened to his family.

"I was horribly worried about him. I didn't know what he was going to do," said Sara Brennan of Trevor when he was most depressed.

Obtaining a hearing aid for Trevor was not as easy as his parents anticipated and with Trevor becoming a special education student, under federal law the school district had to create an individual education plan for him.

"It was always a battle to get services," Trevor said of the annual meetings with school district officials.

For example, he was a junior in high school before a television with closed captions was purchased, he said.

He always sat in the front row and sought out help when he needed it, but Trevor said he was often left with the feeling of being a burden on teachers.

"In school I didn't feel like teachers wanted me to be there," he said.

While Trevor tested as gifted, in the years following the accident his grades and interest in school fell. By his junior year, his grade point average was a disappointing 1.8— about a D average.

But even then, Trevor said he did not want to give up on himself.

During his junior year, Trevor's speech pathologist mentioned a three-week summer camp organized by the New Mexico School for the Deaf— now known as the New Mexico School for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing.

Reluctance to identify as deaf or hard-of-hearing, and some misconceptions by public school officials and his own family prevented Trevor from connecting with the New Mexico School for the Deaf earlier.

"There was a perception that you had to be deaf to go there," said Jerry Brennan, Trevor's father.

'I was challenged'
Of the 60,000 special education children in New Mexico, about 500 are deaf or hard of hearing, according to a task force report completed last year. Some 145 children attend the New Mexico School for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing.

After the 21-day camp, Trevor said he knew he belonged there.

"I was challenged. People at the school for the deaf work hard. They know deaf does not mean dumb," he said.

Ronald Stern, the superintendent of NMSD, noted in a e-mail that when Trevor came to the camp he had a negative self-image and had a gloomy outlook on his future.

Jerry and Sara Brennan noticed a difference in their son after the camp that included outings in the wilderness, a ropes course and academic projects.

"He came home and was like 'I'm going,' '' Jerry Brennan said.

"Though Trevor was only at NMSD for one year, he bloomed in every sense," wrote Stern in his e-mail. "For the first time as a hard-of-hearing person, Trevor found a sense of strong community and belonging and enlightened meaning in a learning and life."

After Brennan scored a 28 on the ACT his senior year, Gallaudet began recruiting him and eventually offered him a hefty scholarship. (The highest score possible on the ACT is 36.)

While Trevor's experience is a success story, it's more often the exception rather than the rule for students who have a disability, let alone students who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.

Only 14 percent to 19 percent of students with disabilities go onto college within two years of graduating from high school, according to research by Stanford University.

The Individual with Disabilities Education Act of 1990 and amendments added in 1997 mandate accessibility to post-secondary education for students with disabilities, but even with additional services available on college campuses only a small percentage of deaf and hard-of-hearing students graduate from college, according to federal statistics.

One of the largest factors inhibiting deaf and hard-of-hearing students from seeking education after high school is low literacy levels.

Typically deaf and hard-of-hearing students graduate from high school with second- to fourth-grade reading levels, compared with the 10th-grade level of their hearing counterparts.

About 30 percent of deaf and hard-of-hearing students leave school functionally illiterate.

Stern said NMSD is "intensely committed" to improving literacy skills of its students.

"With the outstanding staff we have and our ambitious vision and beliefs, we expect our students to graduate with increasing academic, social, career, transition and emotional skills," he said.

Trevor knows attending school at Gallaudet insulates him because at the school deaf and hard-of-students are central. But he intends to obtain a graduate degree from a New Mexico university and plans on a career in the medical field.

With the childhood collision, Trevor's prospects of going into the military tumbled out of reach, as did other careers that required a lot of physical exertion.

Even so, Trevor participated in Junior ROTC in high school, where he said he found some of the most compassionate teachers.

"It's ironic that some retired sergeants would be understanding" of his deaf child, said Jerry Brennan as he and Trevor showed a visitor a living room wall dedicated to pictures of Trevor through the years.

There was a beaming toddler Trevor with a mop of platinum-blonde hair, or the photo of him in his ROTC uniform with his date, and one of him donning a black cowboy hat in his senior year, complete with his trademark quirky smile.

Trevor speaks clearly, but even with the help of a hearing aid he still needs people to repeat themselves.

"Growing up I was ashamed. I hated to ask people to repeat themselves," he said.

Now he has no qualms about telling people he's deaf.

"It's a part of who I am now," he said.

Copyright 2004 Albuquerque Journal